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USC holds off Stanford to win its 10th water polo national championship

For four years, this moment eluded USC. But on Sunday, the men’s water polo team finally earned the national title it spent nearly five years fighting for, culminating with coach Jovan Vavic leaping into the pool, arms raised with an open-mouthed grin, and the reserves and coaching staff jumping in beside him.

The Trojans had reached this game and lost every year since their last national championship in 2013, forfeiting control in the wrong moment and letting it slip away.

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Not this time. The Trojans held on in the final minutes to defeat the Cardinal 14-12 to win the program’s 10th title.

“Right now, it feels like the weight of the world is off my shoulders,” senior Zach D’Sa said. “It is such a relief to finally win.”

Year after year of disappointment fueled the team’s fire to fight for this moment.

“It’s the most important thing in my life to win …” redshirt junior Sam Slobodien said a few days before the tournament. “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

The Trojans struck first with a game-opening goal by Jacob Mercep, who completed a hat trick 50 seconds into the second quarter — the sixth unanswered goal as USC took a convincing lead Stanford could not overcome.

Mercep scored five goals by game’s end, earning tournament MVP.

The Trojans’ offense slowed in the second quarter but the defense remained unrelenting, stifling any Stanford effort at a comeback.

When Luke Wyatt scored the Trojans’ 11th goal in the third quarter, Vavic pumped both fists in the air, along with his players, shouting about how close they were to their goal.

“We waited a long time for this one ...” Vavic said. “A very frustrating four years for us.”

And then, slowly, the Trojans nearly lost control. USC had a 12-4 fourth-quarter lead before Stanford peppered USC goalkeeper Nic Porter with a 7-1 scoring spree to make it 13-11 with 58 seconds remaining.

With 31 seconds left, USC’s Jake Ehrhardt scored. Stanford responded with a goal by Ben Hallock with 18 seconds remaining but by then it was too late. Despite the late struggles, the Trojans off maintained the two-goal lead as the final seconds expired.

“The guys really wanted this one,” Vavic said. “And when you want something badly, and you put everything on the line, the ball will bounce your way.”

Junior Marin Dasic said the motivation was ignited by D’Sa and redshirt junior Danny Leong, both of whom are graduating.

“Everything we did,” Dasic said, “it was for them.”

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The players and coaching staff embraced in the pool in a splashing cluster, then exchanged their sopping clothing for national champion T-shirts and hats.

The losses had become indelible in their memory, Vavic said, their sting still felt. But a new memory sits ahead — of triumph, and hard work fulfilled.

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